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"You egotistical pig!" She doubled her struggles, but his hand slid down to capture her wrist, his grip gentle but unbreakable.
"I think you want me almost as much as I want you," he mused, and there was a disturbing, demoralizing light in his hazel eyes as he watched her.
Rachel felt a slow warmth begin spreading through her beneath the heat of his gaze. Now that the moment was almost at hand she had an absurd need to try to postpone it. "Don't be ridiculous," she said. It didn't help that her voice came out low and husky, that her eyes when she looked up at him were warm and vulnerable and filled with something very akin to love.
"Unless you only get turned on when you think I'm your brother," he added, and that hypnotizing, sensual languor that had filled her snapped.
"Damn you!" She reached up with her free hand to slap him in her sudden rage, but he was too fast for her. Before Rachel could even realize it, he'd pulled her into his arms, and she was crushed against the heavenly warmth of his chest, his strong arms around her, imprisoning her, holding her. She could feel his hot breath stir her cloud of hair, felt the brush of his lips against her temple.
"That's much better," he whispered, his lips taking tiny, delicious little nips of her skin as he moved down the side of her face to her sensitive earlobe, his tongue tracing the delicate curve of her jaw. "I can fight myself, Rachel," his voice drawled in her ear. "But I can't fight you too. Come to bed with me."
She opened her mouth to protest, to stall for time, only to have it silenced by his almost savage kiss. His mouth was hot and hungry on hers, demanding a response that she gave unthinkingly, even as its intensity frightened her. It was too late for second thoughts now, too late to back away. The fire that had been released in him found its match in her, and she melted against his tightly wired body, needing to absorb his tough strength into her very pores.
His tongue was a rough intruder at first, startling to her as it thoroughly explored all the soft and secret contours of her honeyed mouth. But even as her mind was wondering, her body was responding, her tongue meeting his. She gave herself up to the wonder of his mouth, lost in the miracle of it, not even aware that her wrist had been released, that she had slid her arms around his waist and was holding him tightly, as if afraid to let go for fear he'd vanish from her life, as so many others had done.
His hands were warm and strong on her back, molding her against him. She loved the feel of his warm, bare arms holding her, the strength of his chest through the thin cotton barrier of her nightgown. She was trembling with fear and desire and love—beyond anything she had ever experienced. The force of it was dark and terrifying, and she never wanted it to end.
She almost cried out in pain when he pulled back, looking down at her out of passion-hooded eyes. "Rachel?" he said hoarsely.
A quiet sigh left her. "Yes," she said. "Yes, yes, yes."
Ben scooped her up in his arms, holding her high against his chest as he carried her back into the cottage, past the shrouded, familiar shapes of the furniture into the night-dark bedroom. They were alone now for the first time. There was no Emmett, no Harris, no lies or masquerade or motives or revenge. There was just Ben and Rachel, together in the darkness.
Slowly, carefully he lowered her to the wide, rumpled bed, following her down with that strange, tough grace of his. Lying beside her, he pulled her into his arms, not moving, not saying a word as he held her, the warmth of his body soothing her fears, reassuring with tenderness and a mysterious communication. Her slender form was pressed tightly against his, and she could feel how much he wanted her through the soft cotton of his shorts. Almost as much as she wanted him, she paraphrased in her own mind with a smile. But this wasn't a contest, a competition. This was love, whether Ben knew it or not.
His tight, possessive embrace loosened, and gently he rolled her onto her back. Hovering above her, his hands worked with the tiny row of buttons that fastened the ruffled cotton nightdress, fumbling with them. "I didn't have any trouble getting this on you," he murmured, concentrating on the fastenings.
Rachel gave in to a long-denied impulse and ran a questing hand through his shaggy blond hair. "Maybe I'm more distracting when I'm awake," she suggested, raising her other hand up to gently stroke the side of his face.
"Could be." The last button gave, opening the gown halfway down. He made no move to strip it off; he just knelt there, watching her out of passion-dark eyes.
Rachel lay still, feeling strangely weightless against the soft cotton sheet, gazing up at him with mute longing. In the short time she had known him he had kissed her twice, slept with her, but never once touched her breasts. They ached for him, ached for the feel of those large, beautiful hands, and still he didn't move. She could feel herself harden against the thin cotton lawn of the nightgown; her breath was coming in rapid, shallow pants when at last he reached out his hands. To clasp her shoulders, his thumbs gently massaging the tense muscles.
His only response to her groan of frustration was an enigmatic smile as his warm hands slid down her bare arms, his long fingers gently kneading her tense, aroused flesh. They moved, to span her rib cage, and her pulse leaped. Leaning forward, he let his tongue gently trace the wildly beating pulse at the base of her neck.
"Ben." Her voice was agonized, tortured.
"Show me what you want, Rachel," he whispered against the soft warmth of her neck. In answer she reached down, caught his wrists, and brought them to her straining breasts. And then almost wished she hadn't as a wave of feeling stunning in its intensity washed over her.
Very gently his long fingers cupped the swelling peaks, his hands warm and caressing, slowly worshiping. The thin cotton covering was only an added stimulant, rustling against the aroused flesh, adding to the sensations that flowed through her. And then those deft, clever hands pushed the nightgown down, over her shoulders, and his hands were on her, the lightly callused skin a fiery demand on the warm swell of her breasts. Just when Rachel thought she could stand no more, his mouth followed, taking a slow, leisurely possession of one aching breast while his hand continued its wicked way with the other.
She wanted to reach out and touch him, but a strange, sensual lassitude had washed over her with the tender ministrations of Ben's hands and mouth. All she could do was lie there beneath his practiced, delicious onslaught, her body trembling with reawakened and entirely new sensations. His assault on her senses was total, and there was nothing she could do but surrender her body, her mind, her soul, to him.
The gown was pushed off her hips, and his mouth followed, reluctantly leaving the soft bounty of her breasts to blaze a heated, damp trail down her midriff, glancing off her navel, scattering kisses over her gently rounded stomach. He moved lower still, and she stiffened, suddenly shy.
"No, Ben, don't," she whispered.
He looked down at her through the darkened room. "Why not?" His voice was gentle.
She shook her head. "I haven't…that is, no one has ever…"
"Good," he said. His hands were cradling her hips, holding them gently, and before she could protest again, his mouth had found her.
She was completely unprepared for the sensations that swept through her. The pleasant lassitude, the drifting sensuality, and then the unexpected explosion that rocked her body, more violently than anything she had ever experienced.
Rachel called out for him, her voice tight in panic and wonder, and he came to her swiftly, holding her in his arms, soothing her, all the while murmuring gentle, meaningless words in her ear. She hid her face against the warm fur of his chest, breathing in the rich, warm sea and salt smell of him as her breathing shuddered to a more even rate. He kissed her then, his mouth lingering on her sweat-dampened temple, the arch of her cheekbone, the eyelids that had fluttered closed. And then he kissed her mouth, slowly, lingeringly, as she stirred in his arms, reaching out for him with sudden, renewed hunger. She almost cried aloud when he moved away.
But a moment later he returned to her, that frustrating, enticing scrap of cloth
gone, and there were no more barriers between them. She reached out for him, desperate to encircle him in her strong arms, her long, slender legs, aching for him to complete the possession that had started days ago. He moved over her, his strong body a shadow above her, and she felt his long, hair-roughened legs between hers. He was ready, they were both ready, yet still he hesitated.
"Rachel?" It was a question, an entreaty. Even, she told herself, a declaration of love.
"Yes, Ben," she said, her eyes trusting as they looked up into his. "Yes."
He came to her then, with a slow, deep, strong thrust that penetrated to the very center of her being. She cried out then, from the sheer joy and wonder of it, surrounding him with a possession all her own.
How could anything so ancient and so universal still be so glorious? It was her last conscious thought before her body and her emotions took over, responding to the steady, powerful advance and retreat. She could feel the tension build, feel his body tremble with it, as she moved with him, accepting and losing as he completed and then withheld, and the storm began to build.
She wanted this to last forever, to prolong that final moment of reckoning. But Ben was too much for her newly aroused passion. Suddenly the velvet dark night split apart, her body arched, and she shattered. Moments later he was with her, gathering her back together, holding her through the star-pierced blackness as the storm washed over their sweat-damp bodies.
Was it a century later when he moved from her? He didn't move far—his hands still held her tightly, almost as if he were afraid to let her go. She knew how he felt; she was just as afraid he might disappear if she didn't keep touching him.
With a deep sigh she snuggled up against him, drawing his arm around her waist. The feel of the wiry hair on his chest against her back, the warmth of his legs cradling hers, the soft stirring of his breath in her hair all contributed to an overwhelming sense of joy. Rachel didn't want to sleep—she was too happy. She wanted to savor every moment of it.
But once more her body betrayed her, and nestled in the comforting warmth of his body, she drifted off.
« ^ »
It was almost dawn when Ben awoke to look down at the sleeping figure in his arms. The thick eyelashes fanned out over her tear-streaked, tanned cheek, and her mane of chestnut hair tickled his nose. As he watched her he felt a tightening inside, one that came from an aching tenderness, not the fiery desire they'd shared earlier.
He'd never taken so much trouble with a woman in his life, he reflected. He'd always tried to make sure his partner shared in the pleasure, but never had he been so obsessed with someone else's responses, practically to the exclusion of his own. He had wanted to take her to heights she'd never known before, to show her the delights of her woman's body, which she sometimes seemed less than comfortable with, to give everything of himself to her and take nothing back. All that had mattered to him was Rachel and her pleasure. And yet somehow in that selfless giving he'd received far more than ever before.
If only there was some way to protect her, to remove her from the path of destruction he was about to blaze. But there was no way to spare her, he'd known that all along. And now that the inevitable had finally happened, it would only be that much more painful. For both of them.
The early morning light from his window was just beginning to penetrate the room. It must be after five; he was due to meet Tom Moko by the base of the Ne Pali trail by a quarter of seven. It was going to be a rugged forced march into the wilderness area of the cliffs in search of Emmett Chandler. They had to make an early start if they expected to be back by nightfall.
He no longer felt the certainty that he was going to find Emmett Chandler. No matter how big a bastard the man was, he couldn't leave his sister at the mercy of a man who had the strongest reasons for wanting to hurt her. Maybe he really was dead, had been for years? The Chandler millions were motive enough for anyone interested in a little blackmail. Who would know that better than him? It had been the only way to convince the gently avaricious Harris Chandler to help him.
And if Emmett was dead, what then? Sooner or later Rachel would find out who he was. And then that devastating light would go out of her eyes, and everything she felt for him would turn as cold and dead as yesterday's ashes.
He felt a small, almost imperceptible movement by his side, and he turned to look down into those warm brown eyes. Her mouth crinkled in a sleepy smile, and there was nothing he wanted more than to crush that mouth with his. "Tell me something," she said, her voice low and husky from sleep.
"Anything," he said rashly, suiting the action to the wish. Her mouth opened beneath his like a flower opening its petals to drink in the sunshine, and for a moment all was silent in the room but the rustle of the sheets as he pressed her back against the bed. He kissed her, slowly, leisurely, with a thoroughness that left them both wide awake. "What did you want to know?" he murmured against her earlobe, biting it gently with strong white teeth.
"Hmm?" His kiss had effectively erased all rational thought, and it took her a moment to regain a modicum of sense. "Oh, yes, I remember. I wanted to know if you were as tough and mean as you look." She was planting light, experimental kisses across the flat plane of his chest.
"No," he growled. "I'm tougher and meaner." Rolling onto his back, he took her with him, his hazel eyes laughing up into hers.
"I believe it," she said, sprawling gracefully across his body. "It looks like Stephen Ames managed to connect a few times." She ran an inquisitive finger gently along the scraped cheekbone. He didn't even flinch.
"You think I look bad, you should see Ames. On second thought, maybe you shouldn't. You're pretty damned squeamish."
Rachel let out a little squeak of dismay, accompanied by a wiggle that was completely distracting. "You didn't kill him, did you?"
"I did not. I never murder anyone during Lent. I just made sure he wouldn't try to force himself on some unsuspecting innocent again."
"And that's why you beat him up? As a public service?" There was just a hint of laughter beneath her stern expression.
"That was a major incentive," he agreed. "I was also suffering from an advanced case of frustration, and beating the hell out of that punk helped me let off a lot of steam. Of course I had no idea I wasn't going to have to spend another night going crazy from wanting you."
A small, secretive smile curved her mouth. "You almost missed your chance. When I woke up alone in my bed, I was ready to kill you."
"How was I to know you'd decided to forgive me? You can't imagine how hard it was to carry you in to your bed and leave you there alone. It was one of the most difficult things I've ever done, but I figured after almost being raped by that idiot jock, the last thing you needed was me."
She reached up her small, well-shaped hands and placed them on either side of his face, letting her thumbs gently brush his lips. And then her mouth followed, kissing him lightly. "I never needed you more," she said in a soft, shy voice.
A sudden shaft of guilt shot through him, and quickly he stifled it, summoning a mocking grin. "You looked pretty silly, racing out into the night in your nightgown and bare feet."
She let him change the subject with equanimity. "I was mad," she confessed.
"Do tell? And where were you planning on going in that outfit?"
She made a face, playing his game. "I don't know. I just wanted to get as far away from you as fast as I could."
There was a silence, and when Ben spoke his voice was curiously harsh. "Would you have left me?"
She looked down at his battered, dark face against the white of the pillow. "No," she said. "Would you have let me leave?"
"No," he said.
They gazed at each other for a long, silent moment. Ben had the odd, fanciful feeling that in that silence they'd told each other more than all their words had ever spoken.
"Could we make love, please?" Her voice was small, entreating.
"I thought we just did," he d
rawled, smiling, then sucked in his breath sharply as her hands moved down his chest, her gentle, inquisitive fingers exquisitely exciting on his warm flesh.
Smiling, she shook her head before dipping down to press her hot, sweet mouth against his chest. "No, we didn't," she murmured. "You made love to me magnificently, I might add. This time I want to make love to you, too." And her hand trailed lower, enticingly lower across his flat stomach, to catch and hold him.
Her eyes widened as she looked down at him. "Ben?" she whispered in muffled awe.
Leaning back, he smiled serenely, consigning guilt and Emmett Chandler and morning appointments to hell, where they belonged. "Have your wicked way with me, kid."
Pulling herself into a sitting position, she stared down at him, her brown eyes luminous in the haze of the dawn. Slowly she leaned forward, feathering her lips across the scrape on his cheekbone, the bruise on his jaw, the cut lip. She let her tongue gently bathe the wounded lip, following it with small, nibbling kisses. Then she moved her mouth down to the scar on his chin, the knife scar on his chest, the faint trace of an appendix scar on his flat belly.
"You've lived a rough life," Rachel whispered against the heated skin of his chest. "Do you mind that people have tried to kill you?" She let her hands trail up his sides, her fingers playing lightly on his ribs.
"I count it as a measure of my success," he replied in a slightly strangled voice as her tongue dipped into his navel. She was stretched out over him now, her mouth making a leisurely exploration of his stomach and chest, shyly touching, tasting, arousing, both him and herself. She felt suddenly, wickedly wanton, with no restrictions and no rules, only his body stretched out in front of her, wanting her.
Her hands were trembling as they slid up to grasp his shoulders, and her lips found the rapid, pounding pulse in his neck. She could feel his mouth at her temple, and his hands reached up to cradle her against him, strong and hard against her sweat-dampened skin.
"Am I allowed to participate?" he whispered in her ear, his tongue slyly exploring its delicate contours.